On 2nd June 1994, an RAF Chinook Mk2 helicopter, ZD 576, crashed into the hillside near Argyll’s Mull of Kintyre Lighthouse, in heavy fog, at speed and at low altitude.
It was carrying 25 of the leading intelligence experts in the UK – from MI5, the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Army – from Belfast in Northern Ireland to a conference in Fort George, east of Inverness, on the Moray Firth.
29 lives were lost – all the passengers and the four-strong crew. Given the situation in Northern Ireland at the time the understandable early public suspicion was terrorist activity.
The 1995 RAF Board of Inquiry into the incident found it impossible to establish the exact cause of the crash. It suggested that the wrong rate of climb might have been a factor; and it did not rule out technical malfunction.
Then a review of this finding was ordered later in that year, 1995, by the RAF and carried out by two reviewing officers, superannuated Air Marshals – Sir William Wratten and Sir John Day.
This pair concluded – on no evidence but on assumption which later proved to be highly convenient, that the pilots, Flight Lieutenants Jonathan Tapper and Rick Cook, were responsible for the incident and had been ‘negligent to a gross degree’. Wratten and Day simply found that Tapper and Cook were flying too fast and too low in heavy fog. No queries were raised as to why two experienced pilots, carrying such a cargo, would do anything so terminally stupid.
The Wratten/Day conclusion was unprecedented in military protocol. When the cause of a fatal accident cannot be demonstrated beyond doubt – and this could not, tradition dictated that military personnel who had perished should never be blamed, since this would damage their posthumous reputations where they could have no ability to defend themselves.
This inexplicable finding brought public outrage . It also caused anger within the ranks of the RAF, seeing fellow officers, who were then dead, defamed in this way.
It added indefensible abuse to the pain of loss suffered by the families of the two dead pilots – families who fought from that date with dogged determination to clear the names of their sons; and Jonathan Tapper’s father had been an RAF officer himself.
In 1996 a Fatal Accident Inquiry was unable to find a conclusive cause of the crash; and simply recommended the installation of cockpit voice and accident data recorders on military aircraft.
Four years after the incident, in 1998, the Commons Defence Committee declared that the helicopter involved in the crash was not suffering from ‘fundamental flaws’. It made no judgment, however, on the immediate cause of the crash.
The House of Commons had a group of cross-party MPs – the Mull of Kintyre Campaign Group – which survived across several parliaments, dedicated to clearing the names of Tapper and Cook. Argyll and Bute’s then Liberal Democrat MP, Ray Michie, whose constituency here – Argyll – was tarred by association, was one of them.
Information leaked to the public domain
Information trickled into the public domain over this prolonged period, much of it of substantial concern and almost always the cause of renewed appeals for an inquiry – requests serially rejected.
It became known that Flight Lieutenant Richard Cook, for one, had not wanted to fly that aircraft on that mission – but had no option other than to do as he and his colleague Jonathan Tapper were ordered to do.
It was suggested that there were known faults with the aircraft and that this was the reason for the pilot’s preference to fly the older Mk1 Chinook that day.
The problem was identified as centering on software-driven FADEC system [Fully Automated Digital Engine Control], with which the Chinook Mk2 had been fitted.
It became known that this system, which automatically controlled the flow of fuel to the engines, had no manual override for the pilots to use in the case of a malfunction – neither on the top level controls nor the back up system.
FADEC was already known to have caused multiple crashes and serious concern in creating sudden uncontrollable engine accelerations. It is quite conceivable that it was one of these surges that tore ZD 576 i9nto the Kintyre hillside as it began its climb.
None of these germane issues were considered adequate to the instigation of a full inquiry; although a parliamentary inquiry in 2001 found the verdict of gross negligence on the part of the pilots to be ‘unjustified’.
That was already seven years after the fatal crash. It was to be a further ten years – a total of seventeen – before justice wold be done.
Research here at For Argyll – in which we received inestimably valuable assistance in rather mysterious circumstances [detailed below] – produced an authoritative account of the realities behind these leaks. An article we published here [Kintyre Chinook crash issue even more serious: Fox to report to parliament on Philip report on Wednesday] carries a summary that is still shocking today – but is required reading.
in 2002, Tony Blair promised to ‘look personally’ at the findings but made it clear that he would not reopen the inquiry.
In November 2000, a Commons’ Public Accounts Committee report contradicted the original inquiry findings, concluding that there had been repeated problems with the aircraft and the pilots should be cleared of blame.
It found the RAF’s procurement of the FADEC software for the Chinook Mk2 to have been flawed.I t also reported that ‘faults with the FADEC led to doubts as to the reliability and safety of the aircraft at the time and make it very difficult to rule out categorically a technical fault as at least a contributory cause of ZD-576’s crash’.
The Blair government simply declared the Public Accounts Committee report to be ‘superficial’.
With continuing public and parliamentary pressure arising from the patently obvious injustice of the situation, in 2001 the House of Lords voted for an all-party inquiry into the crash. The Blair government gave in.
The inquiry that followed, in 2002 and headed by Lord Jauncey of Tullichettle, cleared the pilots of blame for the crash; and 170 MPs signed an Early Day Motion to overturn the findings of the original report and officially clear the names of the pilots.
Geoff Hoon, then Labour Defence Secretary told the Commons that the Government continued to hold the pilots responsible – to rightly renewed outrage from the families and from the public.
In 2007, presented with a dossier of evidence from campaigners, Labour Defence Secretary, Des Browne, agreed to review the case.
Browne was replaced as Defence Secretary by the ultimate political pragmatist, the ever-flexible John Hutton, a much safer pair of hands for the MoD. Hutton immediately demonstrated his value in saying, in 2008, that no new evidence had been uncovered and that the findings against the pilots would stand.
The new evidence
Hutton’s were famous last words. These – and his arrogant complacency in the face of clear cause for concern about the validity of the finding against the pilots – may have been the straw that broke the reticence of many senior figures in the RAF.
Computer Weekly – a game-changing contributor to the case through its very heavy lifting in research on the FADEC software and the FoI’s it lodged with the MoD – published, by name, the unarguably qualified views of Retired Air Commodore Derek Hine. Hine was a fast jet pilot and a senior officer who had helped write the rules for RAF accident inquiries.
In an interview with Computer Weekly, the first time he had spoken, Hine made it public that there was too much evidence of software problems [with the FADEC system] on the Chinook Mk2 type which crashed to give him confidence that that the pilots were inconclusively responsible for the crash.
It was Hine’s rule for RAF FAIs ,written in 1982, that dead aircrew should be found negligent only if there is ‘absolutely no doubt whatsoever’ – an issue which he found that Wratten and Day did not even consider.
Tellingly, Hine said that on the day before the Kintyre crash, flying trials on the Chinook Mk2 were suspended at Boscombe Down, the RAF’s research and test establishment – largely on account of the unreliability of the critical engine control software.
Expert interrogation of the FADEC software found that the number of its anomalies ran into many hundreds, rendering it unintelligible.
Computer Weekly’s FoIs revealed:
- serious concerns had been expressed at Boscome Down that the FADEC software on board on the aircraft was ‘positively dangerous’;
- on the day of the crash, the RAF – aware of this situation for the previous nine months – had been officially informed that the Chinook was not fit for service, should be grounded and should not be given a CAR certificate – but had gone ahead and flown the aircraft regardless.
For Argyll, anonymous helpers, political intervention and the big result
For Argyll campaigned persistently on this case, publishing a series of articles over time that attracted considerable attention.
These brought us to the attention of some senior expert figures in the defence world whose nature we cannot disclose and whose specific identities we never got to know. These sources were enraged by the RAF’s willingness to sacrifice the posthumous reputations of the pilots to protect themselves from the public knowledge of their own fully criminal irresponsibility in ordering the use of the Chinook Mk2 that day in June 1994.
The guidance these people gave us – as an conduit – was detailed, evidenced, comprehensive and damning. We had a mysterious and remote relationship of absolute trust and we at For Argyll quickly came to respect their forensic intelligence and their fundamental care for right and for justice.
The research which they directed us to do outlined and filled in a picture of the most serious possible concern – a picture we progressively published.
Armed with this information and evidence, we lobbied politicians we felt would be likely to want to help and would work to get some governmental traction in bringing this matter to a just conclusion.
During Gordon Brown’s leadership, with the utter failure of the Blair administration to do anything, we gave Alan Reid the links to the information we had published and asked him to approach the government, as the MP responsible for the area that had unintentionally hosted the disaster.
Mr Reid made several requests to the Prime Minister and Mr Brown, to his shame, serially refused to intervene. So much for the claim of having a moral compass.
The Brown administration then entered the run-up to the 2010 General Election. For Argyll lobbied Alan Reid again and Jamie McGrigor, Highland and Islands Conservative MSP, to ask their respective parties for an assurance that, if in government after the election, they would empower the necessary formal action to see the pilots reprieved.
In May 2010, a Conservative-Liberal government came to office. For Argyll quickly reminded Mr Reid and Mr McGrigor. who had energetically helped us, of the assurances their parties had given prior to the election. They made their approaches and the first Defence Secretary of that administration, Dr Liam Fox, took action at once.
This was a commitment that delivered as promised. Dr Fox resisted the familiar efforts of the MoD to obstruct and circumvent him, as they had done with his predecessors. He appointed the retired Scottish judge, Lord Philip, to conduct a review of the total evidence now available on the case.
Lord Philip and his cross-party high level team got down to work. A year later, Lord Philip reported.
The reality, described in our article, linked above and published on 11th July 2011 as the Defence Secretary prepared to report on the Philip findings to the House of Commons, was even more damning than anyone had imagined.
The Philip Review, as with the 2009 Haddon-Cave Report into the 2006 loss of the RAF Nimrod MR2 XV230 i Afghanistan [and cover-up] – is accepted as an exemplary review of evidence and straightforwardly fearless finding.
On 13th July 2011, Dr Fox unequivocally cleared the names of the two pilots, so dreadfully wronged – and apologised publicly to their families.
Alan Reid MP and Jamie McGrigor MP got their parties to make an pre-election commitment to carrying out an independent review of this case. Had it not been for their determined and successful efforts, the reputations of Flight Lieutenants Jonathan Tapper and Rick Cook would still be officially tarred with gross negligence in causing the deaths of 29 people, including themselves. The distress of their families at this certain wrong would still be unsalved.
Dr Liam Fox will be remembered as the only Defence Secretary who put right values first in this case, who took action and who saw it through.
The public service of both Alan Reid and Jamie McGrigor – assiduously carried out in the case of both men – is graced by the fact that they made it possible for this scarring wrong to be put right.
This was also a stain on Argyll, as the helpless locus for the disaster. People across this place felt a personal relief when the truth was confirmed, sharing with the families of the pilots the lifting of a seventeen year shadow associated with a clear injustice.
The reality was that the RAF and the MoD consciously chose to smear the reputations of two serving officers no longer alive to defend against the allegations.
They did this – and insisted upon it for seventeen years – to protect themselves from the consequences of their criminal culpability and lack of professional care, both of the highest order – leading to the deaths of 29 people, 25 of them together representing the best of the intelligence capability in the UK at that time.